“Thanks for your help,” Paul Bisbee told me when he finally heard from American Airlines. “But it really should not be required.”
Bisbee booked his flight on American back in September for a travel date in January. His case, and our involvement, raises some important questions about how we advocate for you.
After Bisbee booked his flight, something unexpected happened: he suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He undoubtedly needs time to heal and rehabilitate before being able to embark upon his trip to Mexico, which was supposed to be a scuba diving vacation.
When Bisbee cancelled his trip, American issued a credit, which according to industry practice, is valid one year from the date of purchase, or in this case, September 2016.
“I won’t be ready to scuba dive by September,” he told our advocacy team. “I would like the airline to extend my credit until a year from the original travel date.”
Bisbee didn’t start out by contacting us. He did what we advise all consumers to do: Contact the company yourself.
Bisbee forwarded his paper trail, which included 10 separate exchanges with American’s customer service representatives. American refused to grant his request, insisting that his credit must be used within 365 days of the September 2015 purchase date.
“I am on complete disability until April 29, and I feel my doctors will not clear me to scuba dive so soon,” Bisbee added. “American refuses to extend the date, which I don’t understand, as it will cost them nothing.”
Frankly, it’s something I don’t understand either.
The airline industry has developed a voucher system, which it often uses to compensate travelers for inconveniences caused by a variety of circumstances, ranging from unforeseen cancellations and delays to cabin class downgrades — all things that affect real travelers in their real lives.
But the airlines don’t want to use real currency to compensate its customers. Hence the voucher. Unlike cash, the voucher is beset with all kinds of limitations, including lack of transferability and an expiration, which is typically a year from the issuance of the voucher. (Redemption rates for airline vouchers are said to be less than 10 percent, industry-wide. In other words, airlines only have to honor 1 in 10 vouchers they issue — a system clearly favoring the airline.)
When a passenger initiates the cancellation of a non-refundable ticket, regardless of the reason, we find ourselves back in voucherland, but the voucher is even more limited, because it expires one year from the date of the ticket purchase.
We contacted American to ask for a review of the case. We pointed out that Bisbee had already been through the nine circles of American Airlines’ customer service. And we pointed out the foolishness of this time limitation.
“I understand most airlines, including AA, have established the one-year from date of purchase policy for validity of credits,” I wrote to our airline contact. “However, where tickets can be purchased well in advance of travel dates, in most cases up to 11 months prior, a one-year extension from the purchase date is in some circumstances very limiting for the passenger.”
And I left it at that.
A few days later, American contacted me to let me know that the request for an extension had been granted as a courtesy.
Interesting choice of words.
That’s American’s way of saying, “We’re granting the request, because you asked.”
Let me be clear: We have a good relationship with American. They listen to the requests of consumers whose concerns we raise. But as Bisbee himself said, my involvement shouldn’t be required. If American can extend courtesies at my request, surely they could have done it at Bisbee’s request, and much sooner. Not as a matter of courtesy, but as a matter of policy.
This is the challenge we face as an organization. How can we bring to light issues which are problems for consumers every single day? We can’t get every passenger’s voucher extended. And we can’t win back the time Bisbee spent shaking his head at every boilerplate response he received from American. But we’re working on our new mission statement, and trying to advance the consumer’s cause.
And we hope that you’ll join us.